AT noon on the following Friday, August 17th, the chosen knot of friends,—Richmond, Calvert, Tatham, and others,—attended the body of the beloved man to the grave,—saw it laid in Bunhill Fields burying-ground, Finsbury: Tatham, though ill, travelling ninety miles to do so. Bunhill Fields is known to us all as the burial-place of Bunyan and De Foe, among other illustrious nonconformists. Thither, seven years later, was brought Blake’s old rival, Stothard, to be laid with his kin: a stone memorial marks his grave.
Among the ‘five thousand head-stones’ in Bunhill Fields, exists none to William Blake; nothing to indicate the spot where he was buried. Smith, with the best intentions (and Mr. Fairholt, in the Art Journal for August, 1858, follows him), would identify the grave as one ‘numbered 80, at the distance of about twenty-five feet from the north wall.’ Unfortunately, that particular portion of the burying-ground was not added until 1836; in 1827 it was occupied by houses, then part of Bunhill Row. On reference to the register, now kept at Somerset House, I find the grave to be numbered ‘77, east and west; 32, north and south.’ This, helped by the ex-sexton, we discover vaguely to be a spot somewhere about the middle of that division of the ground lying to the right as you enter. There is no identifying it further. As it was an unpurchased ‘ common grave’ (only a nineteen shilling fee paid), it was doubtless—to adopt the official euphuism for the basest sacrilege—‘used again,’ after the lapse of some fifteen years say: as must also have been the graves of those
dear to him. For such had, of late years, become the uniform practice in regard to ‘ common graves,’ the present custodian tells me, amid other melan¬choly detail of those good old times, which mortal sexton cannot but remember wistfully,—of some sixteen hundred burials in the year; until, in fact, the ‘hallowed enclosure’ and ‘resting-place’ was closed by authority in 1854. In 1827, indeed, the overcrowding had not reached its subsequent portentous dimensions. But only a few years later, viz, in 1831-32, when resurrection work was so active, a nightly guard of two watchmen had to be set on foot, and was continued till the closing of the ground. Their watch-box still lingered at the period of my visit in 1854.
To a neglected life, then, consistently followed a name¬less and dishonoured grave. ‘The Campo Santo of the Dissenters’ these fields have been poetically styled. A truly British Campo Santo; bare of art, beauty, or symbol of human feeling: the very gravestones of old nonconformist worthies now huddled into a corner, as by-past rubbish. Wandering lonely around that drear, sordid Golgotha, the continuous rumble of near omnibus traffic forming a running accompaniment of dismal sound in harmony with the ugliness which oppresses the eye: wandering dejected in that squalid Hades, it is, for the time, hard to realize the spiritual messages in song and design of the poet whose remains lie, or once lay there.
The year of Blake’s death has been incorrectly given by Allan Cunningham as 1828; so, too, by Pilkington and the other dictionaries, and in Knight’s Cyclopædia, all copying one another. In the Literary Gazette, and in the Gentle¬man’s Magazine appeared, at the time, brief notices of Blake, in substance the same. The year of Blake’s death, it may be worth adding, was that of Beethoven’s and of Jean Paul Richter’s.
Blake left not a single debt behind; but a large stock of his works—Drawings, Engravings, Copper-Plates, and copies of Engraved Books—which will help ward off destitution from the widow. A
month after her husband’s death she, at Mr. Linnell’s invitation, took up her abode at his house in Cirencester Place, in part fulfilment of the old friendly scheme. There she remained some nine months; quitting in the summer of 4828, to take charge of Mr. Tatham’s chambers. Finally, she removed into humble lodgings at No. 17, Upper Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square, in which she continued till her death; still under the wing, as it were, of this last-named friend. The occasional sale to such as had a regard for Blake’s memory, or were recommended by staunch friends like Mr. Richmond, Nollekens Smith, and others, of single drawings, of the Jerusalem, of the Songs of Innocence and Experience, secured for her moderate wants a decent, if stinted and precarious competence. Perhaps we need hardly call it a stinted one, however; for, besides the friends just enumerated, one or two of her husband’s old patrons, who had in later years fallen away, remembered their ancient kindness when tidings of his death reached them, and were glad to extend a helping hand to his widow. Nor did she live long enough to test their benevolence too severely; surviving her husband only four years. Among these Lord Egre¬mont visited her and, recalling Blake’s Felpham days, said regretfully, ‘Why did he leave me?’ The Earl subsequently purchased, for the handsome sum of eighty guineas, a large water-colour drawing containing ‘The Characters of Spenser’s Faerie Queen,’ grouped together in a procession, as a companion picture to the Canterbury Pilgrims. Mr. Haviland Burke, a nephew (or grand¬nephew) of Edmund Burke, and a very warm appreciator of Blake’s genius, not only bought of the widow himself, but urged others to do so. At his instance Dr. Jebb, Bishop of Limerick, sent her twenty guineas intimating, at the same time, that, as he was not a collector of works of Art, he did not desire anything in return. To which Mrs. Blake, with due pride as well as gratitude, replied by forwarding him a copy of the Songs of Innocence and Experience, which she described as, in her estimation, especially precious from having been
‘Blake’s own.’ It is a very late example, the water-mark of the paper bearing date 1825; and certainly, as to harmony of colour and delicacy of execution, is not, throughout, equal to some of the early copies. But as the leaves were evidently numbered by Blake himself, the figures being in the same colour as the engraved writing, it has been here followed,—thanks to the courtesy of its present owner, the Rev. Charles Forster,—in regard to the order of the Songs as reprinted in Part II.
Mr. Cary, the translator of Dante, also purchased a drawing—Oberon and Titania: and a gentleman in the far north, Mr. James Ferguson, an artist who writes from Tynemouth, took copies of three or four of the Engraved Books. Neither was Mrs. Blake wanting in efforts to help herself, so far as it lay within her own power to do so. She was an excellent saleswoman, and never committed the mistake of showing too many things at one time. Aided by Mr. Tatham she also filled in, within Blake’s lines, the colour of the Engraved Books; and even finished some of the drawings—rather against Mr. Linnell’s judgment. Of her husband she would always speak with trembling voice and tearful eyes as ‘that wonderful man,’ whose spirit, she said, was still with her, as in death he had promised. Him she worshipped till the end. The manner of her own departure, which occurred somewhat suddenly, was characteristic, and in harmony with the tenor of her life. When told by the doctor that the severe attack of inflammation of the bowels which had seized her and which, always self-negligent, she had suffered to run to a height before calling in medical aid, would terminate in mortifi¬cation, she sent for her friends, Mr. and Mrs. Tatham, and, with much composure, gave minute directions for the performance of the last sad details; requesting, among other things, that no one but themselves should see her after death, and that a bushel of slaked lime should be put in the coffin, to secure her from the dissecting knife. She
then took leave of Miss Blake, and passed the remaining time—about five hours—calmly and cheerfully; ‘repeating texts of Scripture, and calling continually to her William, as if he were only in the next room, to say that she was coming to him, and would not be long now.’ This continued nearly till the end. She died in Mrs. Tatham’s arms, at four o’clock in the morning, on or about the 18th of October, 1831, at the age of sixty-five; and was buried beside her husband in Bunhill Fields. The remain¬ing stock of his works, still considerable, she bequeathed to Mr. Tatham, who administered her few effects—effects, in an artistic sense, so precious. They have since been widely dispersed; some destroyed.
Blake left no surviving blood relative, except his sister, concerning whom only the scantiest particulars are now to be gleaned. She had had in her youth, it is said, some pretensions to beauty, and even in age retained the traces of it; her eyes, in particular, being noticeably fine. She was decidedly a lady in demeanour, though somewhat shy and proud; with precise old-maidish ways. To this may be added that she survived her brother many years, and sank latterly, it is to be feared, into extreme indigence; at which point we lose sight of her altogether. Where or when she died, I have been unable to discover. Miss Blake has crossed our path but once casually during the course of this narrative,—during the Felpham days, when she made one in her brother’s household.